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Tag Archive: Retro review


Review by C.J. Bunce

For me, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the film that got away.  I was lucky to have been taken to every great sci-fi classic and Spielberg film from Jaws forward, but multiple Star Wars viewings probably nudged out my chance to see this one back in 1977.  Close Encounters didn’t arrive in theaters until the Christmas season that year and it would likely have generated some nightmares as I was only about a year older than the boy co-star of the film–so it was probably a good thing.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind is back in theaters this week to celebrate its 40th anniversary.  Watching it for the first time on the big screen was like filling in a last brick in the wall.  It’s a satisfying re-watch, and every time you screen a classic in the theater again you learn something new.  The film is being preceded this week by a behind-the-scenes featurette, including an interview with Steven Spielberg and excerpts from the home movies he routinely films as he directs his movies.  It also contains a clip of each iconic scene in the film, so those who haven’t seen the film and want to view it for the first time may want to duck out for popcorn during the previews.  Close Encounters is screening only for a few more days, so no matter how many times you have seen it, it’s time to go back again.  Nothing beats a classic, especially a Spielberg film, on the big screen.

You might find Close Encounters’ pacing to stand out as a bit slow.  Movies today need to be action-packed to grab viewers.  The elements the viewer needs to know are laid out methodically, and yet the film is not told in normal storytelling fashion.  Richard Dreyfuss’s innocent everyman Roy Neary is not your normal protagonist.  Every bit the victim here, he also may be more like a lottery winner, selected to do what many dream of.  He asks for none of the personal invasion he encounters–ripped from his family and job, this uncontrollable compulsion arrives, pursuing him with only a realization that whatever this vision is about it’s somehow important.  From the film’s abrupt start it feels very avant-garde, a bit like modern independent filmmaking, with its back and forth explanation of a communication project in progress spliced with a utility worker who experiences a strange event.  Sequences of real world end-to-end conversations that other directors might have edited to more quickly get to the point also illustrate unusual directing decisions.  Only in what doubles as a horror movie sequence–basically a child abduction–do we get a clear realization of aliens as one possible antagonist of the film.  And when the movie really kicks in at Devil’s Tower the audience can see the international marriage of scientists and military is possibly another villain.  Or is there a villain at all?  Many scenes suggest dissonance itself is the culprit–all the barriers to clear communication that get in the way–the ongoing, pounding barrage of multiple interpreters in a single conversation, air traffic control operators speaking at once, Neary’s wife played by Teri Garr and her kids all talking or screaming or beating toys to pieces, Roy’s co-workers on the radio all speaking at once, a room full of scientists babbling at each other as they try to interpret these six repeated numbers beings sent to them from outer space, aliens playing rapid tones against humans doing the same.  And the sound of all the toys turning on at once, the toys of little Barry (Cary Guffey) that wake up his mom Jillian, played by Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon, forcing her to join the story as a victim along with Roy.  Then the resolution of conflict only arrives as the aliens and humans finally reach clarity with the tonal communication between them in the film’s climactic encounter.  In the preview to the film, Spielberg mentions Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket’s crooning “when you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are” as his inspiration–what the film is all about.  That familiar Disney motif is certainly present thanks to John Williams’ beautiful score.  Maybe Roy is his own enemy–unable to break away from the influence of these beings?  Or by following this calling does he rescue himself from a family that doesn’t understand or listen to him, and a mundane job and neighborhood of zombie-like suburbanites who always seem to be watching him?

Whatever the through line of the story is intended to be, the film is sweeping and enormous in scope, addressing subjects everyone can get sucked into: telepathy, conspiracy theories, all the UFO theories (from cattle mutilations to Area 51 to alien abductions and flying saucers), and unexplained phenomena (from missing people to the curious fascination of aliens with rummaging through refrigerators).  It’s all there in this suspenseful package, all from this brilliant young filmmaker who said he and his cast just couldn’t wait to show everyone this great thing they had created.  Hints at so many films are contained here that you could wonder if Spielberg starts generating every subsequent project idea by first watching Close Encounters:  We see the young child’s parents terrified in their home by some strange force in Poltergeist as Jillian tries to prevent the aliens from breaking into her home.  We see the quiet standing crowd at night waiting at the foot of Devil’s Tower for something good or bad to happen filmed similar to the soldiers waiting as the Ark is opened at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And it’s almost a surprise to realize the mother ship at the end of Close Encounters is not the ship from E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, another giant, flying, lit-up Christmas tree-house transporting that curious little botanist who would arrive only five years later.

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Review by Elizabeth C. Bunce

Amnesia.  A terrifying loss of self, or a chance to start anew?  This is the theme explored in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1946 film noir Somewhere in the Night, starring John Hodiak (Lifeboat, Battleground, The Harvey Girls) and Nancy Guild (Give My Regards to Broadway, Black Magic, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man).  Hodiak plays a WWII vet who awakens in a South Pacific hospital with a broken jaw and amnesia.  The only clues to his identity?  Doctors who keep calling him “George Taylor,” and a wallet empty but for a devastating, angry Dear John letter accusing him of destroying someone’s life.  Unable to stand the idea of being that person, yet without any other identity, Taylor returns stateside, where he discovers that an old friend, Larry Cravat, has opened a bank account in his name, ready to support him upon his return to civilian life.

But his efforts to claim the money open up a can of worms and set a gang of thugs, conmen, mobsters, and even an evil fortune-teller on Taylor’s trail played by Fritz Kortner (The Razor’s Edge), all convinced he can lead them to the mysterious–and still missing–Larry Cravat.

Hodiak’s Taylor is likeable, earnest, and sympathetic, as he tries to navigate the increasingly confusing and seedy world of his pal, Larry Cravat.  Mugged, beaten, chased by cops, thrown out of a sanatorium, and nearly run down by a truck (as it turns out, a villain’s weapon of choice), Hodiak can’t help but wonder: What kind of a guy is this Larry Cravat?

Along the way, Taylor hooks up with a few friendly faces–savvy nightclub singer Chris (Nancy Guild) has a soft spot for the guy, even when she finds out he’s on the trail of the man who broke her best friend’s heart and contributed to her death.  A sympathetic police detective, played with delightful aplomb by Lloyd Nolan (The Untouchables, 77 Sunset Strip, Airport, Earthquake) provides some backstory into the criminal dealings Cravat may have been involved in.  Chris introduces the local nightclub owner, played by Richard Conte (Call Northside 777, Ocean’s 11, The Godfather), who is in love with Chris and tries to help Taylor.  Keep an eye out for producer/director/actor Sheldon Leonard (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Henry Morgan (M*A*S*H, Dragnet) in bit parts.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Readers will expect plenty from the author of such notable noir novels as Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce.  James M. Cain wrote several works after these classics, both in and outside the genre.  But his last novel, The Cocktail Waitress, was never published–Cain instead found himself re-writing it and never giving the final handoff to the agent and publisher in a form he was happy with.  That is, until Hard Case Crime tracked it down, and writer/editor Charles Ardai took all the sometimes competing bits and pieces and edited into a final novel, first published in 2012.

The fun of The Cocktail Waitress is Cain’s writing choices, and the unknown quantity is wondering how much was truly Cain’s preferred words and sections, and how close Ardai’s edit is to Cain’s original vision.  Cain, who many consider one of the greats of the crime genre along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (who co-scripted the screenplay to the film adaptation of Cain’s Double Indemnity), presents a slow-simmering story of a femme fatale told from the first-person perspective of that femme fatale.  Unfortunately the story never quite catches fire until the final four chapters, and really sets ablaze in a bombshell in the final paragraph of the final page.  The cocktail waitress of the title is Joan Medford, a 21-year-old housewife we meet upon learning of her husband’s death.  Her husband was an alcoholic and abusive to her and her son, and he died in a car wreck after storming out of the house drunk.  Or was he?  Police repeatedly return to question her.  Cain’s struggling heroine is easy to empathize with, but the circumstances in which she finds herself prompt the reader to question whether she is lying to us, lying to herself, or maybe she is just one of Cain’s hapless victims of the multiple blows that life deals out.

     

Joan leaves her son with a relative and lands a job as a cocktail waitress.  Her goal is to be able to afford to take care of her son again.  She befriends two men who are customers at work, a wealthy older man named Mr. White, and a young, attractive bad boy named Tom who is reckless and doesn’t understand his own stupidity.  As she describes herself and her actions, Joan does not seem the architect of her own trajectory, but she also is conscious of not letting any man determine her fate.  The men seem to pursue paths with her that she seemingly is also considering, and she goes along, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Her character lacks some consistency, which may be a fault more of the nature of a final, pieced together novel.  She seems sensible and wise, as most people tell themselves about their own actions.  Yet she physically attacks a man at work for acting inappropriately, with little preparation for the reader.  She makes a business deal that risks her nest egg.  She takes actions that risk her job.  So there is an impulsive side to her, but is she the kind of person that would murder someone, and not just one husband, but other men, too?  What will she do, and how far will she go, for her son?  Can we trust her?  Can we trust Cain?

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Review by C.J. Bunce

When you think of the 1985 movie Fletch, you probably think of Chevy Chase’ s humorous, over-the-top take on undercover reporter I.M. Fletcher.  But Fletch the movie was only loosely based on the award-winning mystery novels by author Gregory Mcdonald.  Mcdonald wrote dozens of novels before his death in 2008.  One of those is Snatched, a kidnapping story reprinted this year for the first time in 30 years by Titan Books’ Hard Case Crime imprint.

Originally published in 1978 as Who Took Toby Rinaldi? in the U.S. and Snatched in the UK, Mcdonald crafted a thriller about the botched kidnapping of the eight-year-old son of a Persian Gulf region ambassador to the United Nations as he readies a proposal with global impact before the U.N.  The proposal itself is a bit of a Pelican Brief MacGuffin, but the real action follows a thug named Spike as he hides the abducted boy, Toby Rinaldi.  Toby was on his way to meet his mother Christina for a visit to a Disneyland-esque theme park in California called Fantazyland.  Key to the action and tension are the efforts and setbacks faced by Christina as she attempts to catch the kidnapper, despite her husband’s foreign security squad in the U.S. trying to keep the kidnapping secret.

   

Snatched is a great read.  Its slow, simmering pace reflects nailbiters of the 1960s-1970s like The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Charley Varrick, Magnum Force, or Bullitt.  Many of the characters are intentionally frustrating.  The characters are frustrated, and that is channeled to the reader page after page.  Toby’s father is caught between the direct demands of his king and responsibility to family.  The political factions behind the kidnapping plot–a small group of tried and tested, denizen mercenaries whose failure to communicate and coordinate because of their own personal distractions cause them to trip over each other as they attempt what might otherwise be the simplest of crimes.  Despite Mcdonald’s Fletch character translated to the big screen, make no mistake:  Snatched is not a comedy.  It’s also low on violence, other than a little boy in jeopardy as the main plot point, which is handled deftly by Mcdonald.

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sinner-man-cover

When Elmore Leonard said that Laurence Block grabs the reader and never lets go, he showed he had Block figured out.  Apparently that applies back to Block’s first crime novel, just released for the first time under Block’s name after more than 50 years.  Sinner Man is one of the rare books sought out and released by Hard Case Crime, known for its publishing of never before seen, shelved novels of well-known writers and reprints of out-of-print novels from decades past.  As with Michael Crichton’s and Gore Vidal’s early lost novels, reviewed previously here at borg.com, Block knew how to craft a compelling noir piece from the start of his career.

Sinner Man follows an insurance salesman, a hothead, who accidentally kills his wife during an argument.  Instead of turning himself in and facing a manslaughter charge, he plots out a plan to create a new life, in modern parlance “off the grid.”  What will keep readers glued to the story is the path he takes, the methodical “how to” guide Block lays out for anyone who wants to disappear in the Northeast U.S. circa 1950s.  As he discusses in an afterword, some of the details allowed a criminal to vanish more simply then compared to today, which almost begs for a modern-day update.  Readers will not be able to avoid adapting and contrasting his plan to today’s world as the story develops.  According to Block, the title Sinner Man was derived from the spiritual song about a man who could not escape no matter where he turned.

Block’s anti-hero ends up working for a small city mob network.  His lead is a typical bad man with tastes for booze and good clothes.  Readers will not be cheering for him as much as wondering when and how he is going to “get what’s coming to him” if the classic Crime Does Not Pay lesson from pulp stories rings true.  He’s a thug, he’s violent toward women, and becomes a killer for hire.  The mob here isn’t the kind you’d find in the Godfather, but more like the lower echelon heavies in Casino and Goodfellas.

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Michael Keaton in Jackie Brown

With the popularity of Quentin Tarentino’s other writing and directing achievements, Jackie Brown tends to get short shrift. Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, it’s the exception in Tarentino’s film arsenal where the story concept didn’t originate from the mind of Tarentino.  Yet there are enough changes made by him to make 1997’s Jackie Brown a standout film for the heralded director, and it may very well be his best all-around film, full of style, suspense, and pulp cool.

The prime reason for that is his handling of the character of Jackie Brown as a tough, no-nonsense survivor, and Pam Grier’s ability to fill those shoes perfectly.  The cast of top Hollywood stars and character actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, and the great Robert Forster fills in the remaining blanks. But you may forget the key role played by Michael Keaton as straight-shooter cop Ray Nicolette.

Michael Keaton as Ray Nickolette

Keaton played a supporting role in a previous ensemble cast effort under a popular director, Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, as Dogberry, the closest on-screen attempt at showing what Charles Schulz’s Pigpen would look like all grown up.  Part of the conceit of Keaton’s new film Birdman is the intended irony of a washed-up actor that once played a popular character called Birdman, and the obvious comparisons to Keaton’s Batman and lack of promising acting gigs in recent memory.

In fact Keaton has always been a working actor plugging away at film roles through the years and Dogberry, along with Jackie Brown’s Ray, may have helped fuel the vibe since Keaton was either content to join these ensemble casts with small parts, or that was all he was offered.  Either way, these weren’t major leading man roles as he has found with Birdman.

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Michael Keaton in Mr Mom

Classic comedy from the 1980s includes some of the most re-watchable films.  There are the perennial favorites from the creative talents of the original Saturday Night Live cast, like Caddyshack, The Blues Brothes, Stripes, and Ghostbusters.  Many of the best were written by John Hughes, with National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Planes, Trains & Automobiles among them.  But while these movies can be found all the time on cable, one of Hughes’ best comedy classics inexplicably rarely surfaces.  That film is Mr. Mom, the movie that solidified Michael Keaton as not only a comedic actor audiences loved, but a leading man who could hold his own as top name on the marquee.  The physical comedy Keaton uses in his latest film Birdman has its roots in Keaton’s performance as Mr. Mom’s put-upon co-worker, husband and dad.  In fact early on Keaton recognized his own talent at physical comedy, taking the stage surname Keaton because of Buster Keaton’s similar talents.

Keaton plays Jack Butler, recently laid-off from his Detroit auto plant job.  When he can’t find work, wife Caroline, played by Teri Garr, decides to dust off her marketing degree and take a job working for Ron Richardson, played by Martin Mull.  Jack is laid off with co-workers including one played by Christopher Lloyd, and his boss is played by Jeffrey Tambor.  Ann Jillian plays a single neighbor out to land the homebound Jack, and Carolyn Seymour, who will be familiar to Star Trek fans for her humorous guest appearances, is one of the people who works for Ron (and despises Caroline).  Until this year you could have said each of these actors was at the top of their game in Mr. Mom, although the newfound accolades for both Keaton and Tambor seem to qualify that assertion.

Garr Mull and Keaton in Mr Mom

If you saw Mr. Mom in theaters upon its release in 1983, you may be surprised when re-watching the film 30 years later how many lines you remember.  It’s not quotable to the extent of Caddyshack, but you may find you can quote lines along with the film.  Pop culture references to contemporary movies were a signature of Hughes long before Joss Whedon would perfect them in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Michael Keaton in Night Shift

In light of Michael Keaton’s Academy Award nomination for best actor in the new film Birdman, we’re launching Michael Keaton Week here at borg.com.  Last year Keaton played a dramatic role as a business executive trying to sell America on bipedal drone security and law enforcement that led to the creation of a well-known cyborg in the remake of RoboCop, reviewed here at borg.com.  Everyone first thinks of Keaton from his role as Batman in the original superhero film that re-launched modern superhero blockbusters.  Before that there was his over-the-top, ghost-with-the-most in Beetlejuice.  But how did he get here and what steps helped him become the beloved actor he is today?

Born Michael Douglas, he would use the stage name Michael Keaton on-screen in light of potential confusion with Academy Award-winning actor/producer Michael Douglas (Wall Street, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Coma, The China Syndrome, Romancing the Stone) and TV show host Mike Douglas (if Keaton wins this year for Birdman, he’ll be the second Michael Douglas to win the coveted prize).  The year 1982 was a perfect time for the entry of someone like Michael Keaton into popular culture.  A young Tom Hanks was on TV in Bosom Buddies and Robin William’s Mork & Mindy was in its final season–these kind of zany comedies were just what early 1980s audiences were after.

Michael Keaton Night Shift

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Now Wait for Last Year classic cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Now Wait for Last Year suffers from those chronic problems that plagued many of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels: Dick’s obsession with drug-induced fantasies and his misogyny that begins to grate on modern readers after only a few of his novels, despite a clever idea that could net a solid read if only Dick wasn’t his own worst enemy.

Now Wait for Last Year follows a doctor on future Earth who specializes in organ transplants that allow people to live for decades past their historic life expectancy.  He hates his wife and she hates him.  She stumbles into taking a drug that prompts an incurable addiction and then slips the drug to her husband as revenge.  And then they discover that drug has a side-effect: the right dose will make you travel back or forward–or even sideways–through time.  A new spin on time travel is the classic Dick sci-fi hook for this story.  The trouble is that Dick mishandles it–too many deus ex machina rescues, including more than one by a talking cab familiar to fans of Total Recall, as well as too many references to then-recent history, an ugly future and no redeeming characters.  The writer of some of the best science fiction stories of all time produced far better novels than this entry.

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Kermit in A Muppet Christmas Carol

By Elizabeth C. Bunce

Audiences have loved Charles Dickens’s yuletide ghost story, A Christmas Carol, for 171 years, and it’s been committed to film at least 50 times.  It’s hard to dispute the status of 1951’s Scrooge starring Alastair Sim, or surpass Patrick Stewart’s masterly performance as the cruel miser in the 1999 television adaptation.   But for annual, feel-good holiday fun, our money is on The Muppet Christmas Carol.

Released in 1992 and representing the first of several retellings produced by the zany puppets & crew, The Muppet Christmas Carol also boasts a strong human cast.  Most notable, of course, is Michael Caine (Batman Begins, Get Carter) as Ebenezer Scrooge, in a turn that is just the right balance of humbug and humor.

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge

The Muppet version brings all the elements you expect from A Christmas Carol, from dead-as-a-doornail business partner Marley, to Tiny Tim asking God to bless us, everyone… but with wonderful Muppet twists.  All your favorite Muppets are here, as well, in their expected roles: Kermit the Frog as put-upon clerk Bob Cratchitt (with nephew Robin in the roll of Tim); Miss Piggy as Mrs. Cratchitt, naturally; and even 1990’s standard duo Gonzo and Rizzo, taking a meta-fiction approach as tour-guide-to-the-tale Charles Dickens and a skeptical sidekick.

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